News and analysis
May 15, 2015

A Japanese Charity’s American Debut

Ashinaga Foundation
Tony Award-winning director John Caird and Vassar music professor Christine Howlett are helping Yoshiomi Tamai fulfill his dream of staging a musical production starring Japanese and Ugandan children.
Orphans like Oliver Twist and Harry Potter have always held a special place in literature. But despite their resourcefulness, they rarely succeed without the benevolence of others. That lesson drives the work of Japanese charity Ashinaga, which helps children in Japan and Uganda who have lost one or both parents pay for their education.

The nonprofit owes much of its success to another fictional orphan, Judy Abbott, in the 1912 American novel Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster. In the book, Judy attends a women’s college after an anonymous donor offers to pay her tuition. Although the book is unfamiliar to many Americans today, it inspired multiple film adaptations starring actors such as Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire. But it remains popular in Japan, where it has been the basis of several television shows and today inspires people to give to help others.

The book also led Ashinaga to forge a unique partnership with the author’s alma mater, Vassar College. With the help of a Tony Award-winning director, the charity and the college have produced a musical starring the Ugandan and Japanese children that Ashinaga serves. The musical production, "At Home in the World," will be performed in June in New York and Washington. The show aims to draw attention to Ashinaga’s recently opened branch in Washington to raise money for its work in Japan and Africa.

"It’s a show about the ways in which these three countries and different groups of people really all come together in a mission of making education change lives," said John Feroe, a board member of the group’s American arm.

Pay It Forward

Ashinaga, which means "long legs" in Japanese, grew out of an organization that economics journalist Yoshiomi Tamai founded in 1969 to help children who lost parents in traffic accidents. His own mother died six years earlier after being hit by a car, when he was 28 years old. Mr. Tamai, now 80, renamed the group Ashinaga in 1993 in reference to the novel, which one of his sisters had read to him when they were young. He hoped the new name would encourage people to give. Apparently it worked.

"I came up with the name Ashinaga-san for our donors, and it’s very interesting because that’s when donations really started flowing in," he said in an email, using the common Japanese honorific form of the group's name. "Japanese people are so fond of Jean Webster’s novel that they relate themselves to characters in the book. That’s how much it is loved by Japan."

The anonymity of the donor in Ms. Webster’s novel fits in with the culture of philanthropy in Japan, Mr. Tamai said.

"There is a longstanding attitude in Japan that if you do good for others, you do not let others know about it," he explained. "The Japanese have a philosophy called ongaeshi, which means returning kindness that you have received to others. The nearest English equivalent may be 'pay it forward.' "

The organization, which has raised $1 billion since its founding, offers 20-year interest-free school loans to high-school and college students who have lost one or both parents. It also runs summer camps, community centers, and low-cost college dormitories.

"If you have lost one parent, more often than not you suffer financially, and it is such a tragedy and trauma for a child," Mr. Tamai said.

The charity has expanded its services over the years. It provides scholarships for foreign students to attend Japanese universities and started an emergency relief fund after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, giving more than $23,000 (according to recent exchange rates) to each of the children who lost one or both parents in the disaster.

And it’s moved into Africa, a continent where few Japanese organizations are working full-time, said Mr. Tamai, who won the International Fundraising Congress Global Award for Fundraising in 2012.

Ashinaga runs a community center in Uganda called Rainbow House, for children whose parents died of AIDS, and it has placed more than two dozen Ugandan students at Japanese universities. It’s working to create a residential facility, scheduled to open in July, to house orphaned teenagers from all over Africa, where they will attend local high schools while preparing for entrance exams to universities around the world.

Buck Lewis, Ashinaga Foundation
Uganda native Ritah Nabukenya was able to study at Vassar College with help from the Ashinaga Foundation. The group’s founder, Yoshiomi Tamai, and Vassar President Catharine Hill formed a partnership through their ties to the 1912 children's novel Daddy-Long-Legs.

Campus Connection

Although the campus setting of Daddy-Long-Legs is unnamed, Ashinaga leaders believe it’s likely based on Vassar, where Ms. Webster’s collected papers are kept.

The story of how the two institutions found each other through the novel is "a little bit of a tangled tale," said Vassar president Catharine Hill.

According to Mr. Feroe, the Ashinaga board member, who also is a math professor at Vassar and once worked in the president’s office, the organization contacted the college a few years ago hoping to find living relatives of Ms. Webster’s in anticipation of the novel’s 100th anniversary. College staff members couldn’t locate any but were intrigued by Ashinaga’s focus on education. In 2010, representatives from the charity came to campus to see Ms. Webster’s papers, and the visit fostered a friendship between the organizations.

"The relationship is one where Vassar’s goals of providing the best possible education to an engaged and multicultural student body coincides with Ashinaga’s goals of making such an education available to students whose lives and circumstances might otherwise limit such opportunities," Mr. Feroe said in an email.

The college and the charity now are collaborating in several ways. A Ugandan woman whom Ashinaga helped place at a Japanese university spent the year after graduation doing research at Vassar. And several Vassar students have been interns at Ashinaga centers in Uganda and Japan. One former intern is now running the charity’s new office in Senegal.

Ashinaga hopes to help Ugandan students attend universities in the United States, and Ms. Hill said the college would likely pay full tuition and room and board for any students admitted there through Ashinaga.

"The idea of bringing students to the U.S. is one that is very much in its infancy," Mr. Feroe said in an interview. "They have a lot of work to do to get students up to standards. They understand that and they’re very much focused on it."

Ashinaga Foundation
Ugandan children joined Vassar choral students and Japanese drummers to perform "At Home in the World" in Japan. The show will come to the United State in June.

In the Spotlight

In his group’s work with Vassar, Mr. Tamai was struck by the disparity in opportunities available to Vassar students and the orphans the charity serves in Uganda. So to raise awareness of Ashinaga’s work, he wanted to juxtapose the lives of American and Ugandan students in a musical production.

"These two groups live on the same planet, but there is such a huge difference, such inequality," Mr. Tamai said. "Putting two such completely different groups together on stage would, I hope, give people a chance to think about how we can work to open up important educational opportunities for everyone."

It seemed like a long shot.

"The idea of having this collaboration ... seemed a little improbable at the time," Mr. Feroe said.

But Mr. Tamai was determined, and he called on another person with a connection to Daddy-Long-Legs.

John Caird, a British director and Tony Award-winner, had directed a 2012 musical adaptation of the book, which his wife, who is Japanese, had given to him. After the production toured the U.S., Mr. Caird staged 20 shows in Japan and collaborated with Ashinaga to raise $80,000 for children who had lost parents in the 2011 tsunami.

To pitch his new idea, Mr. Tamai flew to California in December 2012 to meet with Mr. Caird.

"I immediately thought, 'Absolutely not. It's a ridiculous idea,' " Mr. Caird said. But the charity leader was persuasive. "He is just one of those people it is impossible to say no to. I was Tamai-ed."

Mr. Caird proposed incorporating Japanese children into the production, so Ashinaga recruited teenagers who perform traditional drumming. A senior writer in Vassar’s communications office wrote the English narration, which explains how Daddy-Long-Legs inspires Ashinaga’s mission. The college’s choral director and Mr. Caird spent three weeks at the Ashinaga center in Uganda teaching the music to children there.

In March 2014, the Ugandan children joined Vassar choral students and Japanese drummers for a few days of rehearsal in Sendai, Japan, a region hit hard by the 2011 disaster.

And a few days later, students from three continents performed "At Home in the World" in Japan for an audience of more than 1,000 people, including Prince Akishino, son of Japan’s Emperor Akihito.

Atsushi Shibuya
"The children from Uganda stole the show," said Mr. Tamai after a performance in Japan.
"The children from Uganda stole the show: Their dance performance was so wonderful. They sang Western and Japanese songs, and their energy reached the Japanese people," Mr. Tamai said. "It showed that if we can provide an opportunity to children, every child has talent and can excel."

In June, Ashinaga will bring "At Home in the World" to the United States for three performances: at Vassar, at Lincoln Center in New York, and at the Warner Theatre in Washington.

Mr. Tamai hopes the show’s message will appeal to American donors and possibly persuade other universities to recruit students who have lost parents.

"The U.S. is known for its spirit of philanthropy, and I have paid attention to that," he said.

Mr. Caird hopes the creative process will change performers’ perspectives about their cultures and the lives of their fellow cast members.

"Giving people with great privilege the experience of rubbing shoulders with people from the other end of the financial spectrum: It’s a sort of practical lesson in philanthropy," he said. "By allowing people to express themselves together, sing together, dance together, imagine things together, one is trying to create a sort of antidote to all the bad things going on in the world."

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.